21 May, 2017

"Music To Hear" - Indeed It Was!

The title of the concert performed by the Ruddington & District Choral Society last night (Saturday May 20th) at St Peter’s Church in Ruddington was well chosen – Music to Hear. It was indeed, music to hear - and to enjoy, to reflect upon and to be quietly moved and inspired by. The programme notes were clear: “A selection of light choral music for a Spring Evening” – well, it was certainly a selection, it was definitely choral, and it was indeed very suitable for a Spring evening. But, although it might be rightly described as “light” this was in no way popular or easy listening music. This was music to listen to and to think about; music to keep singers, players and audience on their toes throughout the performance: an eclectic selection of works each in its own way taxing for both performers and listeners.

Neither was this a “pick and mix” concert of thrown together “bits and bobs”: there was a common theme that shone through and added to the success of the performance. It was a concert of very English music – both in terms of composers and of musical style: Vaughan Williams, John Rutter, Charles Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford – and, surprisingly but wonderfully, George Shearing the jazz pianist and composer. The church was full with an eager and attentive audience and had every member of that audience closed their eyes for the whole of the performance, and at the same time been unknowing of the content of the concert, the music would have told them exactly where they were – in an English church on an English Spring evening; it could not have been otherwise.  Musical Director Paul Hayward had chosen his programme well – not only was it a successful and very appropriate programme for the time and place but, importantly, one which widened the repertoires of both singers and audience.  With Hayward’s sympathetic, skilled and confident conducting ably supported by the exquisite accompaniment of Michel Overbury’s organ and piano the Choir rose to the occasion magnificently, gaining in stature as the concert progressed. It all ensured that as the last triumphal notes of Vaughan Williams’  Let All the World in Every Corner Sing – the final movement of his Five Mystical Songs – rang out everyone in the church knew that they had much enjoyed and been very much inspired by what they heard. In the months that Paul Hayward has been in charge and that Michael Overbury’s undoubted musical input has been there the Choir has been transformed. It was already good, indeed, a leading light in the local musical scene, but there is now something else – a new dimension. There is a joyousness and depth to the singing and the sound; to watch the faces of the Choir as they face their conductor or their response to Overbury’s accompaniment is to see a choir at one with itself. The widening repertoire has brought a new confidence and musicality; both Musical Director and Accompanist have much to be proud of – I suspect the Choir know it and the audience can certainly see and hear it. 

The programme allowed the Choir – and the solo tenor, Geoffrey Hicking – to show off their musicality to the full. Opening with a subdued but reverential  singing of Parry’s much loved  I Was Glad  the Choir then gave an exquisite rendering of his My Soul There is a Country  from his song cycle  Songs of Farewell. Written after the carnage of World War 1 when Parry was at an emotional low having witnessed the destruction of a generation the Choir gave a haunting and elegiac performance of a difficult work, and in doing so set the tone for what was to come. And what was to come was a serene and beautifully crafted short piece by Stanford – The Bluebird based on the poem by Mary Coleridge, grand-niece of the great Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Michael Overbury’s flowing accompaniment and the gently soaring voices of the sopranos painted a haunting, delicate and memorable musical canvas.
St Peter's, Ruddington

The evening also provided superb musical interludes in the form of piano duets from young pianists Chris Ebbern and Matt Henderson. This was a marked contrast to the choral works and in being so enhanced both. A quiet and beautifully articulated playing of the popular Canon in D by Pachelbel was followed by a bright and majestic performance of Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba – as I sat in my seat I saw that wasn’t alone in quietly drumming my finger or nodding my head in time with the breezy and confident playing of this glorious piece of Handel. And, in the second half of the concert these two talented musicians really tugged at the emotions with a splendidly performed medley of works from the hit musical Les Misérables; from the great revolutionary marching anthem Do you hear the people sing?  to the plaintive Castle in the Clouds  to the emotional roller coaster of Bring Him Home -  these two young pianists captured the audience. At the end of the concert they seemed reluctant to take a final bow – they should not have been so, they had provided a very much appreciated and wonderful interlude between the choral works and not only that, I suspect that many in the audience went away humming and remembering their fine playing as a very real highlight of the evening.

John Rutter is almost a mainstay of 20th and 21st century choral events in this country and further afield so it is difficult to always do him justice such is the ubiquity of his work. But last night the Ruddington & District did just that; their singing of his I Will Sing with Spirit and This is the Day  were both quietly joyous and celebratory. These two works are typical Rutter, music not only to enjoy, but rather to think about, to feel good about but at the same time with an undeniable spirituality about them. Rutter’s music is what one might call “contemporary English” – distinctly subdued, simple, perhaps even homely it is music that is understated but powerful for all that and the Choir captured this completely and in doing so set the scene for the final work of the first half of the concert - George Shearing’s Music To Hear.
John Rutter
This little known work is an absolute gem and in a way quite unique. Born into humble circumstances in London Shearing was blind from birth but from an early age showed a phenomenal talent for the piano. Becoming captivated by some of the great American Jazz musicians of the inter war years Shearing, after working as a pub pianist in London, eventually found his natural home in the jazz scene of New York. He quickly rose to international fame, working with some of the greatest names of the era such as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitgerald. His compositions September in the Rain and Lullaby of Birdland are  recognised as two of the all time great songs and his jazz group the George Shearing Quintet acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz ensembles. He became a US citizen, played for US Presidents, received numerous awards including a CBE and later a Knighthood, and, as he aged, increasingly turned his attention to the classical world and especially to choral work. One of the results of that interest was his composition Music to Hear, a musical working of some of Shakespeare’s words: Music to Hear, Is it for Fear to Wet a Widow’s Eye, Shall I Compare Thee, Sigh No More Ladies and Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind.

This work is and was last night an absolute delight. Taxing in the extreme for any choir it requires much unaccompanied singing; the layered voices and changing rhythms means that everyone has to be on top of their game. Sitting in the audience I watched and listened quite mesmerised; the Choir totally focused on their conductor as he led them through the musical intricacies and potential pitfalls this complex work where Elizabethan airs intertwine with jazz melody and where Elizabethan courtly dance rhythms vie with sophisticated jazz syncopations. It was a rich tapestry of gentle reflective almost elegiac music interwoven with beautifully articulated, bright jazz phrasing  that would have equally found favour at some great jazz venue like Ronnie Scott’s. It was not an audience of jazz aficionados that listened in that village church in the middle of England last night but we all knew that this was something special.  Michael Overbury’s subtle and often swinging accompaniment gave added brilliance – yes, that is not too extreme a word - and as the final notes died away and brought an end to the first half of the concert there was an almost audible intake of breath; the concert, and Shearing’s work as  performed by the Ruddington & District had in the very gentlest of ways a “wow factor”  and I suspect that many, like me, felt that we had been part of something that had cut to the very soul and to the very heart of Englishness – even though it had been composed and first performed across the Atlantic, far from middle England and a Nottinghamshire church!
The multi-talented George Shearing

Refreshed with a glass of wine we all took our seats looking forward to the second half and we were not disappointed as the Choir began with conductor Paul Hayward’s own splendid arrangement of the old English song Soldier, Soldier Will You Marry Me. With the tenors and basses often providing a military marching beat this was another work that everyone needed to concentrate upon. And this they did – every word crisp and clear the ladies of the Choir carryied on a musical conversation with the men until, as the final bars approached, the wayward tenors and basses had to confess to those ladies of the Choir that that they could not marry for they had a wife and babe of their own at home!  Smiling at this bit of musical fun the audience burst into applause – it was English music and history to the core, a tale of an English Redcoat soldier and the young girl bedazzled by the his fine uniform and apparent bravery, and all brought to life with Hayward’s fine arrangement. He must have been well pleased with his Choir for  their enjoyable and much enjoyed rendering of his work.

And so to the final three works – all by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Williams, born of a well to do family with strong moral views and a progressive social and political outlook sought, throughout his life to be of service to his fellow citizens and believed in making music available to everybody. Declining many offered honours such as Master of the King’s Music he rose to the top of the English musical world of the early twentieth century and wrote music that touched and continues to touch and tap into the very essence of England and Englishness. It is not inappropriate that despite his lifetime rebuttal of fame and fortune he was buried in Westminster Abbey. For many, Vaughan Williams’ greatest legacy to his country and to music is his transcribing of English folk songs – in 1903 he “discovered” this interest when he heard a 70 year old labourer sing a folk song at a vicar’s tea party. This musical heritage was becoming extinct as country life changed, literacy became more widespread and printed music became more easily available.  So Vaughan Williams set himself the task of travelling the country and transcribing for posterity this great musical heritage. In all he set down over 800 such works which otherwise might have been lost and in doing so had a profound and lasting effect upon the music that he himself, and others, composed: The English Folk Song Suite, Fantasia on Theme by Thomas Tallis, Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus and various parts of his nine great symphonies are all witness to the impact of English folk music; in short he created an English sound.

The Choir’s beautiful singing of Vaughan Williams’ The Turtle Dove was a delicate and mellow rendering of the song first heard by Williams at The Plough Pub in Rusper, Sussex in 1903 when the landlord sang the old song to the composer. As I sat listening to this haunting song of love and loss I couldn’t help but feel that this the England of Thomas Hardy, of rosy cheeked, fresh faced girls, of strong young farm hands, of harvest time and of great rural skies. Tenor Geoffrey Hicking’s gentle solo voice was an admirable foil for the choir’s sublime singing as the last of the Spring sunset died through St Peters’ church windows. And as the sky turned dark, one of the great English songs – Vaughan Williams’ Linden Lea -  based on the poem by Dorsetshire poet William Barnes was sung. This was Williams’ first published song in 1912 and, so to speak, brought his name to public attention. We sat spellbound at the sheer musicality of this lovely melody and the Choir’s almost reverential singing. It spoke of a different time – of ladies in pastel flowing dresses and feathered hats, of men in waistcoats, of village greens and the sound of bat on willow. It spoke of the last sunset of Edwardian England before the grotesque carnage of the Great War and the much harsher and perhaps more cynical and mistrustful modern world that we now inhabit. Yes, maybe it spoke of a mythical world that never really existed, a rose coloured place that we like to believe in but that mattered not for the Choir transported us back to this better place and we loved them for it.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
The final work was also Vaughan Williams: his Five Mystical Songs  the musical  settings of George Herbert’s seventeenth century The Temple: Sacred Poems. Simple and yet deeply spiritual Vaughan Williams’ lingering, poignant and evocative composition weaves a complex fabric of sounds, melodies and words. The solo tenor part was exquisitely sung by Geoffrey Hicking and the choral accompaniment at different times mysterious, magical and then majestic. Sitting listening one couldn’t but recognise the influence of the English folk song tradition on Williams’ composition and at the same time feel the spirituality of the work as echoes of great liturgical music made their presence known. The lonely, almost bleak sound of the tenor contrasted with the subdued but rich devotional voices of the choir and produced a moving and mystical atmosphere. And as the song cycle moved into its final section, too, and the finale of the concert the magnificent and glorious words and sounds of the great hymn of praise Let All the World in Every Corner Sing rang through St Peters. In a trice the music and the atmosphere changed from the mystical and mysterious to the celebratory and triumphant; the Choir’s soaring voices, Michael Overbury’s majestic chords, the tenor’s glorious sound and Paul Hayward’s swooping baton brought it all to a sparkling and exultant yet reflective and meditative climax. A fitting work, indeed, to end such a concert in an English church on a Spring evening.

Yes, this was indeed Music to Hear – but it was more. I suspect that it wasn’t just me who walked out of St Peters’ into the dark night and knew that this was music to think about not just to hear. It was music to remember, music not just as entertainment but music to enrich the soul and perhaps remind us of our humanity and of our tiny place in the great scheme of things. Thank you Ruddington Choral Society, and thank you Paul Hayward, Michael Overbury, Geoffrey Hicking, Matt Henderson and Chris Ebbern  for such a wonderful evening that will stay in the mind for a long time.

As I flicked through my programme this morning - the day after the concert I noticed the programme for RDCS's next concert in December! What a treat - especially so for me as a Baroque music enthusiast. A huge change from last night's programme and a programme that will test the performers in so many different ways and to their musical limits: JS Bach's glorious Magnificat, his much loved Cantata No. 140 Sleepers Wake and ,from the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble, the exquisite Corelli Concerto grosso in G minor. Op 6. No. 8 - The Christmas Concerto. What better way could there be to start Christmas! Come and join us at St Peter's on Saturday Dec 9th to enjoy the choral glories of the world's greatest composer, Johann Sebastian Bach and the stunning beauty and brilliant musicality of Arcangelo Corelli's timeless and Concerto - you won't be disappointed!

You can find out more about the Choir at http://www.ruddingtonchoral.com/

15 May, 2017

Sipping Red Wine By the Sea

Red wine in the verandah
We have just returned from a few days at our favourite hotel – the Langstone Cliff Hotel in Dawlish, Devon (see blog: In praise of the Langstone Cliff: March 26 2011). We have been visiting this place regularly for many years and love it as much now as when we first visited. Dawlish itself is a quiet place with no pretensions; if you want designer restaurants, chic shopping malls or beaches  rivalling those of the Caribbean then Dawlish is not for you. But if you want a quiet, homely, relaxing and “honest” seaside place then you will not be disappointed. The hotel is only a few hundred yards from the sea and you can sit, as we did last week, on the verandah or at one of the tables on the lawn and enjoy one of the finest views in England over Lyme Bay as you sip your beer or wine, or enjoy an al fresco lunch. The Langstone Cliff Hotel is not only  a wonderful and much loved hotel in a much loved place but it is also our "bolt hole", our place to recharge the batteries, our place to get back our bearings. We are not alone in that - each time we go we see other guests who are also regulars and have been so for many years. It is quite simply home from home.

As always when we visit the Langstone for a few days we take a book or two to read – part of the relaxation and recharging of the batteries – and this time I was reading a book written about twenty years ago by  Richard Hoggart: The Way We Live Now. Hoggart, who died in 2014 was an academic and  Professor of English who had leapt to international fame in 1957 with his seminal work The Uses of Literacy – a review of British working class culture and the impact of mass and popular culture on late 1950s Britain. The book was without a doubt a game changer. In it Hoggart sought the answers to two basic questions: when a society becomes more affluent – as Britain did in the 1950s – what impact is there on that society’s values and, secondly, how is a society which is increasingly affluent and more able to access non-essential items such as cars, TVs or washing machines, better provided for in terms of health and social care, and increasingly well educated and literate impacted upon by the growth mass and popular culture. It is an understatement to say that The Uses of Literacy was a ground breaking work; it has often been called the most important and influential book of the twentieth century such was its profound effect upon the thinking, the politics  and the society of the second half of the twentieth century both in Britain and across the western world. Even today it is still essential reading for those involved in social, cultural or academic provision. 
Richard Hoggart

I first read The Uses of Literacy in the summer of 1963. I  had just qualified as a draughtsman but had decided to change career and was about to embark on an A level course at Blackpool Technical College with a view to going to teacher training college. Prior to the A level course beginning I had been given a reading list by the Head of the A level Department, Mr Parkin – a man who, because of his military bearing and military  moustache, we teenagers always called “The Colonel”. The book wasn’t specifically related to any of the subjects that I was studying (History, Geography & Economics) but, said Mr Parkin, it was a book (together with others such as Plato’s Republic , The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, The Rise of the Meritocracy, Family and Kinship in East London) that I should read to widen my understanding of the world. I can so well remember that summer sitting in the local park or at home devouring these books in addition to those recommended for my A level subjects. But more than any I can remember reading Hoggart’s book, my mouth often agape at what I read. It was hard going and at that stage I didn’t understand all of it – but I can still vividly remember thinking and feeling that as I read it the book was speaking to me. It didn’t only make sense to me but much of it was about me and my life. It was what I could see going on around me – a boy from very much a working class background, suddenly exposed to education and a world unknown to my working class parents. The quotes, comments and prophesies that Hoggart made – based upon his own upbringing as a working class boy - were exactly, almost word for word, what I experienced and both heard and saw every day. The feelings and ambitions that he described were my feelings and ambitions. The subtle changes that he noted as increasing affluence impacted upon ordinary people were what I witnessed and experienced each day.  And as both mass and popular culture took off, the Beatles, the teenage world, American films, pop stars, TV, advertising, the media and the rest were all slowly starting to influence both the life and times of the nation and my own life. I knew that Hoggart was on to something.

Over the years I have often returned to Hoggart’s book and recalled or reread bits of it but a few weeks ago I bought what one might term its sequel,The Way We Live Now. Written in 1995 Hoggart did what it says on the title - looked again at society but, now, as it was in 1995. It is, like The Uses of Literacy  a controversial, hard hitting and compelling book as Hoggart conducts an examination of late 20th century society. The result is almost a melancholia for a lost past rooted in real human experience and unmediated by commercial mass culture. If anything it is even more pessimistic than The Uses of Literacy as Hoggart reflects upon the twin evils of intellectual relativism and rampant consumerism. He suggests the latter years of the twentieth century saw a growth in morally vacuous and intellectually vapid ideas most notably witnessed in the ideology of Margaret Thatcher,  her ideological successors, and the rise of the global consumerist society.
Looking out over Lyme Bay from our room at the
Langstone Cliff Hotel

I had completely re-read The Uses of Literacy prior to going off to Devon for our stay at the Langstone Cliff and as we enjoyed the delights of the hotel and the few days by the sea I read Hoggart’s 1995 sequel. Each evening, I sat on the verandah of the hotel looking out over the lawn and the sea and sipping my glass of red wine and pondered Hoggart’s observations. My overwhelming reaction was that this book was written about twenty years ago so it was very easy to assess how unerringly accurate, powerful, articulate and prophetic Hoggart's  arguments were and, worryingly ,how much more so would they be today in 2017. When he wrote this book social media was largely unknown, the financial and consumerist excesses of the latter years of the twentieth and early twenty first centuries was still to come, the internet was very much in its infancy, mobile phones, i-pads and the like were dreams in the minds of people like Steve Jobs, and things like digital broadcasting bringing a host of TV opportunities and race to the bottom programming were still largely waiting to be manipulated by global companies like SKY and Fox News. Globalisation  was in its infancy; looking back to those days we could never have imagined how much the world would change within twenty years. Hoggart’s criticisms and fears for the “health” of society in the face of the growth of mass culture and populism made him both anxious and angry – how much more so would he feel that today if he was still alive.

I could write a whole series of blogs on the issues thrown up by Hoggart’s books but as this blog starts and ends with our visit to the seaside I will concentrate upon just one - those relating to what Hoggart saw as the decline in literary taste and standards.

In The Way we Live Now  Hoggart expresses concern and regret that although as we are better educated and have greater opportunities than ever before there has been a tendency for what I will call “dumbing down”. In particular he reflects upon the paradox of the written word; today, more people can read, more books are published and more widely available than ever before - yet increasingly “good" literature is being side lined in favour of popular/mass works. Look at the best seller lists and they are largely filled with literary dross. True, there are various awards for "quality literature" but the sales of these books are totally dwarfed by the sales of popular, light weight novels. Hoggart also cogently argued that the quality of even these lightweight works is dismally poor, reflecting the lack of aspiration in wider society. Libraries are closing at a rapid rate and those that remain are increasingly focusing upon popular works or even non-book (such as CD/video/internet) use rather than literary works of merit. Hoggart is not alone in his comments: linguist, philosopher and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky makes much the same point in his book How the World Works. Chomsky writes: "I travel a lot and often visit the airport book store to buy a classic or maybe one of the current recommended quality texts. Now it's almost impossible anywhere in the world....I think it is just plain market pressures. Bestsellers move fast and it costs money to keep books around that don't sell quickly. Add to this that the big book chains which pretty much dominate the market don't want non-sellers on their shelves so the books are not displayed or increasingly not published". The result of this is, of course, that since the books are not on display or promoted the public know less and less of their existence so are unaware of what they offer. The whole thing becomes a self fulfilling prophesy. In short, dumbed down sells; mass and popular culture have increasingly taken hold of the intellect, the desires, and the literary tastes and abilities of the public. The literature of modern western society is increasingly becoming lowest common denominator stuff. Proof of that can be seen easily by walking along the shelves at any chain bookshop, by looking at the best seller lists or by taking a brief look at Facebook or other social media sites with their banal “posts”; they prove poet W H Auden’s commentary of half a century ago “Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves”. Auden wrote that in 1944 of what he saw then of popular and mass culture – what would he say today if he reviewed Facebook, the tabloid press, the contents of our book shops, the content of our TV programmes, or the superficial trash that Hollywood produces so thin in story line, characterisation and use of language that it has to be "sexed up" with digital technology and a steady stream of faux violence. But the public have, sheep like, learned to love it for increasingly they know no other.  As a committed and passionate social democrat I am wedded to the notion of equality and bitterly against the increasingly divided societies that global capitalism is creating in the western world. But, it is increasingly my view that equality should not mean "ordinary" - too often today there is a tendency to reject great art, music or literature as "elitist" and instead value the ordinary; Mr & Ms Joe Public increasingly want to be one of the crowd, liked, loved, not pushy, not "toffs". It is a worrying trend.   
"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and sky"

One important area of literature, poetry, has suffered especially and Hoggart is damning in his criticism of society's increasing lack of enthusiasm for poetry. Children no longer, it seems, learn or recite great poetry at school; too often poetry and poems are perceived as old fashioned and elitist, perhaps only to be used for special occasions. And yet, poetry is one of the mankind's great forms of communication; the words of some of the great poems cross the ages, generations and cultures and if used at some particular occasion - a funeral, a wedding or some important state occasion - are often the thing that symbolises and helps to make sense of that occasion in the hearts and minds of those present. 

Hoggart is not alone in his concern for the health of poetry in society and of praising of poetry and its importance to humanity as these few comments show:

·         “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” (John F. Kennedy: President of the USA)

·         “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language”. (W. H. Auden: Poet and author)
·         “Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” (Aristotle: Philosopher)

·         “Teach your children poetry; it opens the mind, lends grace to wisdom and makes the heroic virtues hereditary.”  (Sir Walter Scott: Author)

·         “Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot have much respect for himself, or for anything else.”  (William Hazlitt: Author and philosopher)
From my evening table on the hotel verandah.
Can there be a finer view than this?

I couldn’t agree more. I am not a poet, nor do I profess to have any great poetical skills or understanding. But to read some of the great poems – or even just extracts from some of these poems is not only rewarding but invariably takes one to another place; in just a few words, a poet can create a universe.  Poetry, above all, is the very essence and highest form of communication for it not only communicates words and ideas but also feelings, emotions, morals, aesthetics and every other facet of the human condition. Its business is the very sprit and soul of mankind and its words continue to be true and have meaning and validity long after the poet is dead and gone. A piece of poetry, like great music and great art, is not limited by years or even generations, it is eternal.

To read lines and feel enriched by wonderful words such as those from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.

or to envisage the silent calm of evening sunset described by Thomas Gray in the opening lines of what many regard as the greatest of poems Elegy written in a country church yard:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds.....

or to be moved by words such as these from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad:

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
    Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
    Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
    Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
    I never kept before

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
    Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
    Falls the remorseful day.

or to have one’s to emotions shredded and one’s core beliefs and innermost senses questioned by reading one of the Great War poems by Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen’s damning and at the same time profound and elegiac:  Anthem for Doomed Youth:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
"....And the flung spray and the blown spume
and the sea gulls crying...."

is to be reminded of the human condition and one’s place in the world and beyond. Philosopher, economist and to many the father of capitalism, John Stuart Mill’s words on poetry  are unquestionably apposite: “....poems are a medicine for my state of mind; they express not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling.......they seem to be the very culture of the feelings, which I am in quest of...”   Mill was not wrong.

And as I sat on the hotel verandah, sipping my red wine and looking out over Lyme Bay and reading Hoggart’s words, or as I sat on the bench on the sea front watching the waves crash onto the sandy beach below, I was reminded of two poems by John Masefield which, at some point, I always find myself silently quoting whenever I am near the sea:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Sea Fever
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
"....For the call of the running tide is a wild call
and a clear call that may not be denied..."

I am no great judge of poetry nor am I, unlike my wife, especially besotted by the sea but to sit near the shore and reflect on the words of these two great works - which I learned by heart at school - is both satisfying the quite magical. The sound and “feel” of Masefield’s great works confirm in my mind the truth of Matthew Arnold the great poet and educator's words: “Good poetry undoubtedly tends to form the character and the soul; it begets a love of beauty and of truth in alliance together; it suggests noble principles of action, and it inspires the emotions – hence its extreme importance to all of us”.